Thursday, September 3, 2015

Weird Kitties: An Organized Anti-Slate For The 2016 Hugos

Weird Kitties is an organized anti-slate with a simple goal: to try to make sure every work on the 2016 Hugo ballot is there because of fans who nominated it because they liked it, and not because some bigoted jerk told them to nominate it.

This isn’t going to be easy. We already know Vox Day has 540 nominations for anything he wants to put on the ballot. John C. Wright’s got a novella out. SJWs Always Lie will surely be up for Best Related Work. And I’m sure a little thing like forgetting the existence of the number four isn’t going to keep the Voice of God from proclaiming himself best editor again. Given this, George R.R. Martin’s advice to ignore Vox Day is not going to accomplish anything other than letting a fascist jerk set the ballot. Again. 

In practical terms, anything that the majority of Hugo voters might actually prefer to No Award is going to need at least 541 nominations to be on the ballot. And that’s not going to be easy bar for anything to clear, especially not without sinking to the ugly and bullying tactic of slates.

The good news is that there are five thousand of us, united, if nothing else, by the facts that 1) We voted in the Hugos, and 2) We are not Puppies of any stripe. We are not a campaign. We are not a political movement. We are not playing some elaborate game of four-dimensional chess in order to topple Christendom. Indeed we, in the sense of “me and everyone reading this,” are not even all five thousand voters. But nevertheless, we are a bunch of fans defined by the simple fact that we’re eligible to nominate things for Hugos next year, and we’re not Vox Day’s pack of rabid dogs.

One of the most helpful things, then, would be if all five thousand of us nominated, and if we nominated a full ballot. Among us, we’ve got 25,000 open slots on our ballots in every category with which to push a work over the slate-busting threshold of 541. That’s doable, but it’s also hard. A lot of us, myself included, don’t identify five eligible Hugo-worthy items in every category in a normal year’s reading. In many categories, a lot of us don’t identify one. We don’t all have writing Winds of Winter to be distracted from, after all. And we could use some help.

So I’m creating Weird Kitties for exactly that. It’s going to be an ongoing conversation about awesome science fiction and fantasy that’s come out and is coming out in 2015, conducted for people who want to fill in their Hugo ballots with things they love.

First off, some promises. Weird Kitties is not and never will be a slate. It will never be some sort of stealth “slate by another name.” It will never have an official list of suggestions, of recommendations, or of anything else like that. It’s also not going to just reflect my taste, although I’ll obviously be contributing to it. At every step of the way, I will include as many interesting and exciting voices about science fiction in 2015 as I can get. If you intend to fill out your Hugo ballot with things you choose instead of things someone else chose for you, your voice is welcome here.

For now, it’s going to focus on two things. First, I’m going to make a series of open threads over the next few weeks for the various categories, and just ask people for suggestions of works to check out in those categories. Second, I’m soliciting positive reviews of Hugo-eligible work from anyone interested in writing them, subject to the rules below. And to be clear, I mean anyone. I mean you. Yes, you. Write reviews of Hugo-eligible work you loved and send them to me.

When we get to December or so, I’ll start tracking the many “Year’s Best SF/F” threads and posts that I’m sure will be popping up, trying to handicap what some of the natural frontrunners are. And finally, when we get into 2016, I’ll be running annotated nomination ballots from as many interesting people as I can find, and I intend to go looking for some very interesting people. The result will be your ongoing guide to what was interesting in science fiction and fantasy in 2015.

So basically, pull up a chair and join us. We’re going to be geeking out about science fiction for a while. And we’d really love to do it with you. The first open thread will be on Saturday, discussing potential Best Novel candidates, so please stop by and chip in.

Rules for Reviews

Reviews can be any length. I’ll compile short ones into occasional omnibus posts, and run longer ones as stand-alone posts, along with knocking up a central list to index them all. Send them to snowspinner at gmail. Please make sure to include the title, author, eligible category, and a link to a legal way to obtain it.

Some restrictions.

First, again, positive reviews. The point is to help people find work that they’ll love. Negative reviews, by definition, don’t do that.

Second, no reviews about anything you have substantial creative involvement in or stand to make a profit off of. This does not mean things you backed on Kickstarter, for heaven’s sake. If you didn’t make it and don’t stand to make money off it, review away. Honor system on this, and if you have reason to believe I’ve run something sent in against this rule, please let me know.

Third, and relatedly, no reviews about anything that I have substantial creative involvement in or stand to make a profit off of. Nothing from Eruditorum Press, nothing out of Pex Lives, nothing I’ve contributed to. I will not use the Weird Kitties banner to self-promote in any way.

Fourthly, nothing from Castalia House. I just won’t. 

Finally, at the end of the day, I remain the sole arbiter of what goes on my webspace. I’m not going to just run reviews of things I like, or even of things that I think sound good. I’m actively interested in reviews I disagree with; I can write the ones I agree with myself, after all. But in the end, it’s my judgment call whether I run a review. My main criterion is simple: do I think this review will persuade someone to check out a work and go on to nominate it for a Hugo. But there are secondary ones - if I’ve already published a review of something, the odds drop that I’ll do a second one. Similarly if it’s an author we’ve already got covered pretty well. I'm sure pretty much every story in China MiĆ©ville's new collection is plausibly Hugo-worthy, but I'm not going to run a review on every one. And, as the Castalia House exclusion suggests, there are some views and positions I’m not willing to use my voice and my platform to support. If, you don’t think you can be a grownup about having a review rejected, don’t send one.


Why you? You’re some nobody blogger.

Because I want the resource to exist, mainly. I want to fill out a full nomination ballot. I don’t imagine I’m alone in that. And I think there’s a lot of fans who haven’t been regular Hugo voters before but who care about protecting the awards who could use a resource like this. And that’s also kind of why me. Because I am a small-time blogger and fan, and nobody can accuse me of carrying water for John Scalzi or Patrick Nielsen Hayden or whoever, since I’ve never so much as had a conversation with any of them.

You’re just doing this on behalf of the SMOFs.

Nope. As I said, I don’t know any of them. Never been to a Worldcon, never been active in organized fandom. Pretty sure my best claim to being a SMOF is that Paul Cornell said some nice things about my Doctor Who blog once.

You’re just doing this to sell books/increase your Patreon.

I mean, I’m certainly aware that this might bring new readers to the site who could stick around for some of the other content and become fans. But I’m not going to directly profit from any of the Weird Kitties stuff, I’m not going to self-promote under the Weird Kitties banner, and frankly, I’d make a lot more money if I spent the time this is going to take editing my next book. 

You’re just doing this to advance your anarchic postmodern Marxist occultist agenda.

Well, yes, at least inasmuch as one of the reasons I care about the Hugo Awards is that I don’t want to see them hijacked by a neoreactionary creep like Vox Day. That said, I’m happy to run reviews of conservative-minded stuff, and if you point me towards conservative-minded stuff that’s good and interesting, I’ll even review it myself. Indeed, I’d really like it if some people who were previously sympathetic to the Puppies jumped ship and wrote some reviews here to try to promote conservative-minded sci-fi without being dicks about it. I’m a leftist, but other than being overtly opposed to the specific politics of Vox Day, this is not a consciously leftist movement. If you’re someone who wants to nominate work you choose instead of work chosen for you, welcome aboard.

So I can send you a review about how you should nominate “Unbowed, Unbent, Unbroken” because of how awesome Sansa getting raped is?


But you said

Go away.

OK, but seriously, surely the last thing fandom needs is another animal-based Hugos campaign.

I suspect the genie is already out of the bottle on that. And more to the point… Well, two things. First, I think we need an organized effort to resist the Puppies, because otherwise their slate tactics are going to win. But second, I want to show that it’s possible to be organized and diverse at the same time. I want to show that Vox’s ugly and bullying tactics can be defeated cleanly, even without E Pluribus Hugo (which I strongly support, and will continue to support regardless of how this effort turns out). I want to show that he’s not better than us, and that we can beat him fair and square, without compromising our values. I don’t just want to win, I want to show that a bunch of fans voting for what they love can beat a couple hundred goose-stepping jerks. 

Why “Weird Kitties”?

Well, the Kitties are the obvious choice. I mean, whoever decided to make the first conscious anti-Puppy organizing group was always going to call it the Kitties. As for “weird…” because it’s a word with so much meaning within SF/F. Not just the “weird fiction” tradition of H.P. Lovecraft and China Mieville, but the idea that science fiction and fantasy should be about strange new things, as opposed to trying to rehash a vision of the past that’s more nostalgia than history. That and the fact that Vox Day’s new book, SJWs Always Lie, makes much of contrasting Hugo voters with “normal” people. If Vox Day is normal, I sure as hell wanna be weird.

What can I do?

Participate. Watch the open threads and mention good things you’ve read. Write reviews. And more importantly, read the threads, read the reviews, and check out things that sound cool. Try to inform yourself about science fiction and fantasy that came out in 2015, and then, when 2016 rolls around, fill in a full ballot’s worth of nominations. 

Wednesday, September 2, 2015

Comics Reviews (September 2nd, 2015)

You know the drill; worst to best of what I bought.

But first, something I didn't buy, because it's free.


Out today for free for iPad, this is the digital comics platform Leah Moore and company have been working on, featuring, among other things, Alan Moore and Coleen Doran's "Big Nemo." Which is unsurprisingly the highlight of the package here, with a series of clever uses of the virtual page and its mutability that evoke the playful wonder of McCay's work in a new medium. It feels like it ends on the title page of what should have been a much longer comic, though. The Garth Ennis strip is also neat, but the other two feel more interested in their own whizz-bang gimmicks than in actually being interesting, and the app is still a bit sluggish, resulting in frustrating reading experiences for both of them. Still, well worth the price, and they're apparently still smoothing it out, so hopefully it'll end up as a more functional package in a few weeks. Still hard to see this having much in the way of legs as a platform, but a fun little oddity of the world.

As for paid stuff...

18 Days #3

The art takes a turn towards abject mediocrity, the plot seems to wander off completely from anything it had been doing, and Grant Morrison's not even in the credits as doing anything but "creating" a series that's just a retelling of classical Hindu mythology. Wretched.

Daredevil #18

Fine, in the sense that there's little wrong with it as such, and it's nice that Waid was given leave to avoid there only being Secret Wars at the end of his run, but the truth of the matter is that he stayed on this book at least a year too long, and probably closer to two. It's never been bad, but the energy had long since drained, and the denouement, despite bringing Kingpin in, did very little to change that. And the Shroud's plot seems totally unresolved.

Doctor Who: Four Doctors #4

This lost rather a lot of pace for me, with an ending that's much more "what's happening" than "what's going to happen" and the limitations of Neil Edwards's art getting in the way of the story sometimes. (His Tennant and Smith can be very indistinguishable in the middle distance.) There are fun bits, but this event is starting to look like it's going to underwhelm.

Silver Surfer #14

There's really not such a thing as a Michael Allred comic that's not fun to look at, but this has to be the most one note comic I've seen in a while; it starts with a tone, carries that same tone to the end of the comic, and then, well, ends, generally without doing much. Strange and lazy-feeling, frankly.

Miracleman #1

The best part of this comic is the edit to Neil Gaiman's script to refer to "The Original Writer." So nice to see the project still haunted by its past. In any case, following one of the biggest pieces of rank bullshit in recent comics memory when Marvel fucked up the printing in an iconic scene of their overpriced reprint comic and then didn't issue replacements, thus screwing collectors who were already, shall we say, impatient with paying $5 for less than twenty pages of story, I'm back on the horse with this godforsaken money sink for the simple reason that I've never actually read the Gaiman material, so I'm curious. It's... not Gaiman's best work; the psychedelia in the lead-up feels strained, like he's trying too hard to hit a style that's just not natural for him. But it's still a fascinating piece of work, and a pleasure to read a bit of 1990 Gaiman that most people haven't. Man, though, Buckingham has improved as an artist in the past quarter century.

Thors #3

A fun Thor/Loki interrogation scene occupies the bulk of the issue, which moves along nicely as a result, but overall the degree to which Secret Wars is a millstone around Marvel's neck right now is a real problem. It's not this book's fault at all, but the sour taste of Marvel in effect charging $4 extra for the series because it's so late really does spoil things, as does a pretty flat ending. Still, the interrogation scene is fun.

Lazarus #19

Some good plot twists here, although for an arc with this high stakes, this is really feeling kind of... sedate. I like this issue - leaving Forever dead for most of it is a nice way to tell the story that doesn't overstay its welcome. So I'm hopeful the end of the arc will spark a bit. But for the amount that's happening, I'm finding myself strangely detached from this book.

The Dying and the Dead #3

In some ways, given how badly the schedule here is borked, a flashback issue that traces alternate history instead of following up on the apparent main characters is wise. It's apparently going to be a while before #4, so something off in its own little corner is a good idea. Still, hope this book gets its act together, because while this is a good issue, it's not a sustainable approach.

Providence #4

It's frankly not a good week when what's a fairly middling issue of Providence is the only credible candidate for the top slot, but that's how it is. This is a somewhat understated issue, with some interesting implications for the larger plot, but not a lot happening here. One also gets the sense that we're setting up a more general shift in the comic - having plowed gamely through "Shadow Over Innsmouth" and "The Dunwich Horror," the only real remaining top tier Lovecraft story is "Call of Cthulhu." With eight issues left, then, we're clearly going to have to veer towards some more obscure stuff, which suggests a change in tone and pace. So this feels a bit transitional. And yet it's still denser, smarter, and longer on reread value than anything else in the pile, and the only thing that feels like it offers anything like value for its cover price.

Monday, August 31, 2015

I Can Lock All My Doors (Super Mario Kart)

It feels as though we are only ever going in circles or hurtling off cliffs.

For most of the Super Nintendo originals so far we have seen series that originated on the NES, and then found more refined forms in the 16-bit era. Super Mario, Final Fantasy, Castlevania, Ghosts ‘n Goblins, Contra, and Zelda all had fantastic games on the Super Nintendo that were either the equal of their NES forebearers or their better. 

Here we have something new; a franchise that begins on the Super Nintendo. These days Mario Kart is one of the tentpole releases for a Nintendo platform; just as they all must have a Zelda and a Smash Bros. Here it exists in its primal form, as much a piece of history as Super Mario Bros. or The Legend of Zelda

Time has done it no favors. Almost everything there is to hate about later Mario Kart games is here, along with flaws idiosyncratic to this version, while little of what makes some of the later games classics had been honed here. The rubberbanded AI is at its most cloying, adding a sense of futility to the player’s actions. The race is as capricious as ever, not just in the way that small mistakes are amplified brutally, but in the same infuriating “snatching defeat from the jaws of victory” way that makes every game in the series such a hazard to controllers. Here it’s  aggravated by the way in which AI opponents can simply spam you with infinite projectiles, often leaping over yours in ways you can’t do to theirs, an asymmetry that gnaws constantly, as opposed to things like the last lap blue shell, which is at least a rare occurrence. 

Unique to Super Mario Kart, the increase in difficulty from 50cc and 100cc is completely out of whack. at 50cc the race is tolerant of numerous small mistakes like clipping a wall, and often even of a big one like falling off the course. At 100cc, even small mistakes are likely to cost you victory. Meanwhile, the handling is sloppy; the drifting mechanic that would define every subsequent iteration of the game did not exist yet. Played today, it has a frustrating roughness that is not so much difficulty as alienation. It’s just not much fun.

In 1992, it was a very different kettle of fish. For one thing, not only was it not yet the progenitor of a classic line of games, it was a sequel in all but name. Like F-Zero before it, it is a racing game based on using Mode 7 for the track, creating a pseudo-3D effect that was quite striking for the time. But F-Zero was something of an empty suit of a game; a tech demo without content that became a classic almost in spite of itself, much as Anna described. 

Super Mario Kart, then, is the refined attempt - the same gameplay mechanic, only fine-tuned so as to entrance the player far more deeply in it’s spell. The use of Mario characters was certainly part of this. F-Zero fit into the same generically metallic future that the “Lazer Blazer” suite in Super Scope 6 did; this, meanwhile, was a party in the Mushroom Kingdom, a strange truce that brought Donkey Kong and Bowser together, and had them in a free-for-all go-kart race with Mario and Peach. It was insane and wonderful.

The biggest failure of F-Zero, beyond its generic aesthetic and slightly dull races, was that it lacked any two-player mode. You would race against the placid AI or not at all. Super Mario Kart, on other hand, is designed for two; indeed, the single-player mode maintains the split-screen design of the two-player mode despite its utter pointlessness to single-player racing. 

There are three two-player modes in total. The first inherits the flaws of the single-player; an eight-racer free for all with all the capricious difficulty, though at least it’s somewhat easier to unlock the Special Cup this way, since the effect of a second human player is to depress the scores of the AI racers. The second, however, is a delight; a head to head race that maintains the madcap thrills, but refines them into a strategic items dual. The resulting game has all the fairness the GP lacks, although it requires players of comparable skill levels; otherwise, it’s easy to lap an opponent humiliatingly. 

And then there’s the third, Battle Mode, which provides one of the most exquisite pleasures of the entire sixteen-bit era. Instead of racing, you and your presumable friend drove around Pac-Man style labyrinths, collecting items and firing them at each other, with the first to cause three spin-outs in their opponent the winner. It’s a beautifully well balanced thing; the “ahhhhh stay on the road” dynamic of the main game is present, but without the same sense of immediate penalty. Instead the game is a pleasantly manic process of scrambling around trying to find a still-active question mark block (and moreover one with a useful item), then of trying to find your opponent and get into a position to fire something effectively. The labyrinth and constant motion mean that the two players quickly move in and out of line of sight, and the mutual pursuit a structure with engaging empathy. It is a simple but well-designed game, not enough to justify a full release, at least not without more thought about level design and a robust AI, but a treat.

The fact that its pleasures were largely in multiplayer, however, meant that I was never among the nine million owners of this game. I rented it occasionally. But this meant that I was almost always playing it single-player, a fact that, like the passage of twenty years, did it no favors. But that was the way of my childhood.  I was an only child for the NES era, and indeed for a decent chunk of the SNES era: this came out a month before my sister did. And it was not as though she was a suitable video game opponent as an infant; the first game we really shared was Super Smash Bros. Brawl, and that required ludicrous handicapping to be even slightly fair. 

But I want to be clear, for all that I think the game has aged poorly, I have fond memories of it. It’s a minor but indelible footnote in my creation myth. This, however, is mostly due to the experience of playing friends’ copies, their presence meaning I could access the superior two-player mode. Super Mario Kart was hardly the only game to fall into this category, and we’ll talk about others in good time. But it is, for me, an odd category. Video games were, for my childhood, a solitary pursuit. Most things were; I was an introvert as well as an only child, a chicken and egg situation that I do not imagine can be easily untangled. But video games, with their strangely sacred bodily submission to external authority, were a powerful temple for solitary worship. They were, in their own way, my first magickal rituals.  

But it exists in a strange twilight realm; my experiences of it, in a very real sense, are not quite my own, but shared with others. Tellingly, however, I hardly remember who I might have played it with. I know a couple people with whom I played the Super Nintendo - generally family members and family friends - who form a pool of likely suspects. But I cannot, within that pool, identify But I don’t know who I played this game with. In that regard, I suppose I made it single player by something like fiat. 

Magic, perhaps.

Saturday, August 29, 2015

Saturday Waffling (August 29th, 2015)

Those inclined towards more of me nattering on about the Hugos will enjoy the video blog I just did for the wonderful Aric Clark. Embedded below.

Those who want to talk about something different, well, let's do the Hannibal finale, which airs properly tonight (next week UK, I believe), although I do the same thing I do with Doctor Who and buy the iTunes Season Pass then torrent the episodes.

Anyway, I thought it was brilliant. Fun Shabcast with Jack coming where we talk about it and many other things. How'd you like it, if you watched it?

Friday, August 28, 2015

Be afraid of stories, be afraid of storytellers. They are only trying to lie to you. (The Last War in Albion Book Two, Part Seven: Before Watchmen: Silk Spectre)

Previously in The Last War in Albion: Before Watchmen: Minutemen did some mildly interesting technical things with the form, but was frustratingly vapid in its portrayal of race, gender, and sexuality.

As with race, the real problem here is a lack within the book; it is, in the end, pretty much only interested in white men. And, of course, this is a complaint that can readily be leveled at Watchmen as well: essentially all of its non-white characters are supporting characters who are killed in the book’s climax, and women are thoroughly marginalized within its plot, which also focuses almost exclusively on white men. These are well-trod and valid criticisms of Watchmen. What is baffling and disappointing, however, is that Cooke, a writer who got the job largely on the back of his historically-grounded previous take on the time period in which it’s set, repeated the errors. Especially given the extent to which Cooke retcons out large swaths of Under the Hood. To go to great lengths to revise Watchmen only to, in the end, uncritically reiterate its flaws is, to say the least, a disappointment.

Figure 860: Before Watchmen: Silk Spectre
also featured the worst of Jim Lee's generally
execrable variant covers for the series.
At least some of these problems are addressed by Cooke’s other Before Watchmen series, Before Watchmen: Silk Spectre. The book’s racial politics are still deeply imperfect, with the overwhelming majority of non-white characters being villains, as are its gender politics. But there’s at least an evident investment in the latter, and one that came into the book’s conception quite early. Cooke made the presence of artist and co-writer Amanda Conner a precondition for taking on the book, on the grounds that, as he puts it, “I didn’t feel like I could convincingly write a young girl at that point in her life.” The breakdown of work appears to be that Cooke came up with the basic plot, and that Conner did actual page breakdowns (Cooke explicitly credits her with the decision - unique among the Before Watchmen artists - to work entirely within the nine-panel grid) and a lot of the nuance. 

Figure 861: The final page of Before
Watchmen: Silk Spectre
 tacitly positions
Laurie as an object traded among the male
characters. (Written by Darwyn Cooke and
Amanda Conner, art by Amanda Conner, from
Before Watchmen: Silk Spectre #4, 2012)
For the most part, this breakdown of duties favors Conner. The overall plot, after all, is where much of the weakness comes in. The premise - a sixteen year old Laurie Juspeczyk runs away from home in frustration at her mother’s demands on her and lives amongst hippies in 1966 San Francisco for a bit - is a solid idea. But the execution, which ultimately hinges on her two father figures, Eddie Blake and Hollis Mason, going to San Francisco to, in their own ways, rescue her. It’s certainly a story with a female lead character, but it’s a story that’s ultimately about the way in which Laurie is a possession traded among men, focusing heavily on her obsession with boys and closing with the abortive Crimebusters meeting depicted in Watchmen #2 with her giving her (ironic given Watchmen) assessments of the characters, before a final splash page of Laurie sitting between Night Owl and Doctor Manhattan, her two romantic interests in Watchmen, making eyes at Doctor Manhattan and thinking, “get a load of this guy. He looks like one of those classical greek statues! But with no hair. Kinda like an Oscar. He’s so big. And beautiful. And blue. I wonder what it would be like to take him home. I bet that would really, really piss off my mom.” Making this finish all the more unsettling is the angle chosen, which frames Laurie and Doctor Manhattan in the midground, with the foreground occupied by the Comedian’s legs, symbolically placing Laurie on “daddy’s” lap and continuing the tacit theme of paternal forces controlling Laurie.

Within the confines of these problems, however, is Amanda Conner, who is perfectly suited to rescue the project from its own worst impulses. Conner is a longtime industry veteran who broke into comics in the late 80s and worked on a variety of titles for Marvel, DC, and other companies before, in the early 21st century, finally emerging as a major talent. Her style is firmly rooted in the comics tradition of good girl/cheesecake art, and her books are full of sexy women with ample curves, which she draws in an appealing and light-heartedly cartoonish style. But her real specialty is in facial expressions, through which she gives her characters a wealth of humanity and depth that female characters in American superhero comics all too often lack. Simply put, Amanda Conners is adept at having her characters go through a range of emotions within a scene.

Figure 862: Amanda Conner is particularly adept at storytelling
through facial expressions. (Written by Darwyn Cooke and
Amanda Conner, art by Amanda Conner, from Before Watchmen:
Silk Spectre
 #1, 2012)
This is evident from the start of Before Watchmen: Silk Spectre, in the opening scene, an expansion of the snowglobe flashback from Watchmen #9, continuing to a discussion between a five year old Laurie and her mother over the fact that her nominal father (and Sally’s agent), Laurence Schexnayder has left them, this time for good. The dialogue within the scene is perfectly capable, but what makes it sparkle is Conner’s handling of the characters’ faces: Laurie’s angry scowl as she declares that she hates him, her wide-eyed expression as her mother tries to comfort her, her subsequent look of real concern as she asks her mother if she’s all right, and finally the look of weariness as she starts to comfort her mother, grasping one of her curls in her own little hand, just as she’d been comforted three panels earlier. A tremendous share of the emotional weight of the storytelling here is down entirely to Conner’s choices, which elevate a relatively cliche scene to something subtle and revealing that, through little details like the tired, resigned look as Laurie tells her mother it’ll be OK, sets up the contours of the pair’s fraught relationship.

Figure 863: Conner riffs not only on Watchmen's
nine panel grid, but on its use of juxtaposition.
(Written by Darwyn Cooke and Amanda Conner,
art by Amanda Conner, from Before Watchmen:
SIlk Spectre
 #2, 2012)
This sort of thing continues throughout the book, giving Laurie a depth of characterization that goes well beyond the script, and amply illustrates what Cooke meant when he said that “Amanda is the heart” of the book. But Conner’s skill in Before Watchmen: Silk Spectre goes well beyond the facial expressions. As mentioned, Conner consciously took on the challenge of working within Watchmen’s formal structures. This doesn’t just mean the nine-panel grid either. For instance, the second issue opens with a sequence that makes clever use of Moore and Gibbons’s technique of juxtaposition, combining the text of a letter Laurie writes Hollis to try to reassure him and her mother that she’s OK with a fight scene. The result is a set of wry parallels not entirely unlike the combined interview/fight scene from Watchmen #3, such as a page-width panel of Laurie taking cover from a knife-wielding gang with the caption “please let Mom know that I’m in a safe place,” the panel of a man getting hit in the face with a bucket of paint alongside the caption “Mom taught me so much about handling the stuff life throws at me,” or the transition within a panel from the caption “I want her to stop treating me like” to the dialogue, as the gang holds Laurie down and taunts her, “quite the little princess, aren’t you?” It’s genuinely funny and clever, though perhaps not quite as funny or clever as the disdainful expression on Laurie’s face two panels later taunts, “I don’t think mommy spanked you nearly enough,” a panel before she overpowers him by punching him in the balls. Elsewhere, Conner makes shrewd use of Watchmen’s reiterating symbolism, using the famed snow globe not just as an opening image in the first issue, but repeating the image of a castle in a circle on the side of the psychedelic VW Bus that picks Laurie and her boyfriend up at the end of the first issue.

Figure 864: The nine panel grid breaks up into
a psychedelic haze. (Written by Darwyn Cooke
and Amanda Conner, art by Amanda Conner, from
Before Watchmen: Silk Spectre #3, 2012)
More substantive is the sequence in the third issue in which Laurie drops acid, a blur of psychedelic colors that steadily breaks down the nine-panel grid, at first via pages that still consist of three stacked tiers of rectangular panels, but eventually starting to bend and twist as the imagery gets increasingly surreal. Around the time Laurie is visited by the skeleton of her pet bird (as she’s abruptly seized with paranoia that her mother might be underfeeding him) the comic becomes a weird and satisfying hybrid of Dave Gibbons’s Watchmen style (which Conner’s cartooning-influenced style is in the same general tradition as) and the abstract and psychedelic style that Steve Bissette and John Totleben brought to Moore’s Swamp Thing run, until the page finally becomes a spiral over which a hippy explains how, if she learns to train her mind, she can “really live in reality. Y’know… in the now. Heck, you might even be able to see all facets of reality and time at once,” a line that does not merely cast a glance at Laurie’s future boyfriend, but which, especially when overtly situated in the 60s psychedelic aesthetic, reads as a broader homage to Moore’s work and vision. 

Figure 865: Amanda Conner visually quotes a panel from Watchmen.
(Left: Written by Darwyn Cooke and Amanda Conner, art by Amanda
Conner, from Before Watchmen: Silk Spectre #12, 2012. Right: Written
by Alan Moore, art by Dave Gibbons and John Higgins, from Watchmen
#4, 1986)
Perhaps the book’s most inspired riff on Watchmen, however, comes in its final issue, as Laurie confronts the book’s main villain. The fight ends in macabre fashion, with Laurie kicking the bad guy in the throat, at which point her thigh-high heels get stuck in his throat. As he staggers off making a variety of sounds of the general form of “guhhrrrghkk,” Laurie grabs his gun and pursues him into the street. Conner inserts a red-tinged close-up panel of Laurie’s face as he holds the gun, a maniacal grin on her face - a panel that’s a clear riff on a panel of the Comedian in Vietnam from Watchmen #4. At which point Cooke and Conner double down on the macabre humor as the villain is unexpectedly hit by a bus. After a series of suitably gruesome panels that include a femur sticking out of the front grille of the bus, Conner returns to Laurie, who looks absolutely bewildered by events and then leans over and vomits in horror and disgust. 

Figure 866: Another deft bit of facial characterization
from Amanda Conner. (Written by Darwyn Cooke and
Amanda Conner, art by Amanda Conner, from Before
Watchmen: Silk Spectre
 #4, 2012)
Aside from being a bleak bit of humor in the vein of the deaths of Dollar Bill and Captain Carnage, this is an effective commentary on the relationship between Before Watchmen: Silk Spectre and the parent text. It is not the only point in the comic where a panel from Watchmen is referenced in the course of Laurie fighting people, and generally these panels specifically reference panels depicting her biological father, the Comedian. The effect is to depict the violent world of superheroes as something that exerts an inevitable and dangerous gravity on Laurie’s life - a fact that quietly forces a reevaluation of the paternalistic role that Hollis Mason and the Comedian have within the narrative. Similarly, Laurie’s complete revulsion when her Watchmen-referencing bloodlust is confronted with the gruesome reality of severe bodily harm is a prime example of the way in which Conner’s skill at facial expressions add nuance to the narrative by giving Laurie opportunities to implicitly respond to the absurdity of her world.

Which is, in the context of Before Watchmen, important. Before Watchmen: Silk Spectre is unique among the Before Watchmen books in that it actually finds space within the methodology and iconography of Watchmen for a critique of the book. Conner is alone among the creators in being willing to use the opportunity to add to Watchmen to affectionately deface the original work. And it’s a solid criticism - the fact of the matter is that Watchmen does a deeply imperfect job of capturing the interiority of its female characters (it’s notable that Laurie’s focus issue is mostly about her trying to persuade Dr. Manhattan to return to Earth, such that the climax of her history is not her own), and that Before Watchmen: Silk Spectre does a better job with Laurie than Watchmen does.

All the same, it’s tough not to grant Moore’s central criticism of the entire project. Conner’s loving critique of Watchmen is good, but in the end, it’s still a book whose feminist sensibilities are hemmed in by the fact that it’s designed as a prequel to another work. It’s difficult not to feel that Amanda Conner writing a bespoke mother/daughter pair of superheroes in the 1960s that didn’t have to resolve by leading into a comic about men. The resulting comic could still have quoted Watchmen in a variety of ways - working within a nine panel grid, using juxtaposition and repeated symbols, and even visually quoting individual iconic Watchmen panels, but would have been able to express a vision of what comics about women should be, as opposed to being a mere footnote to another work. And Moore’s indictment of a comics industry that would rather employ Conner to do Before Watchmen: Silk Spectre than that is entirely on point.

All the same, Before Watchmen: Silk Spectre manages the genuinely impressive feat of marginally improving Watchmen. And, given the book’s quality and impact, that’s no small feat. Certainly it’s not something any of the other writers on Before Watchmen managed or, in most cases, even bothered to attempt.} [continued]

Several observations over this and the previous two installments were inspired by William Leung's "Who Whitewashes the Watchmen."

Thursday, August 27, 2015

A Review of Vox Day's New Book SJWs Always Lie

"In a world that is really upside down, the true is the moment of the false." - Guy Debord, Society of the Spectacle

Also, it has two chapter fives.

Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Comics Reviews (August 26th, 2015)

Secret Wars to get an extra issue and continue into December, two months after the Marvel relaunch. DC reportedly cutting page rates to creators, eyeing price increases, and cutting back on innovation in favor of the New 52 house style. What a great time to be a comics fan, eh?

From worst to best of what I bought, which wasn't much this week.

Old Man Logan #4

Actually a really solid comic; the Logan/She-Hulk scenes are great. Except that they're a great She-Hulk story, and the comic is a Wolverine comic, so instead of staying with the interesting character we just watch Wolverine hurled to another location. It turns out a character whose only motivation is grudgingly surviving in a story with no visible overall plot is kind of unsatisfying. Who knew? Apparently not Bendis.

Batgirl #43

A perfectly good issue of Batgirl that doesn't necessarily do much to impress so much as faithfully deliver what people enjoying this book are paying for.

Doctor Who: Four Doctors #3

Some distinctly dodgy plot logic on why the Macguffin affects individual regenerations of the Doctor with specificity, and an outright unrecognizable River Song in her two panel silent cameo, but for the most part the strongest issue yet, with a reasonably fun twist on the backside. Not entirely convinced by Cornell's Twelfth Doctor, but his Eleventh is strong and his Tenth is probably the best take on the character after Davies's. This remains fun and frothy.

Where Monsters Dwell #4

This has had a really interesting drift as Karl becomes increasingly less funny and more depraved. Ennis in his sharpest comedic mode, basically. Not a classic of Ennis's oeuvre, but very much fun. Also, a well handled trans character, especially given that the only issue made out of it is the fact that Karl's too stupid to realize it.